Premiere of Gilgamesh Weeps this Saturday
Several months ago, choir director Shannon Gravelle reached out to Lisa Neher and me about a commission for her tenor/bass choir at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. We began by holding a Zoom meeting with Shannon and the singers, and asked them what kinds of things they wanted to sing about. They had told Shannon that they were “tired of God and love,” and of the traditional, often toxic, ways that creators write for men to sing.
I wanted to write a text that expressed a different kind of masculinity, a masculinity where there’s room for love and for sorrow, expressed truthfully and without shame. I had several ideas, and decided to write about Gilgamesh and Enkidu. My first draft was quite long, and draws on the Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” which tells of how a mythic Mesopotamian king, Gilgamesh, aids his sister, the goddess Inanna, by driving away demons from her willow tree. For this, she gifts him a “mikku” and a “pikku,” thought to be a drum and sticks or beaters for the drum. But Gilgamesh is careless and he loses these items. His devoted friend Enkidu offers to find them, and enters the Netherworld to do so. But the Netherworld has rules: once you’re in, you can never leave. Enkidu’s ghost is able to rise to the surface world briefly, where he tells Gilgamesh of the horrible conditions of the Netherworld. Other writings about Gilgamesh exist, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells this story in a rather different way.
But what I had was way too long, so I cut it and ended up with a much shorter text that Lisa could set in the time frame of the piece. Below, I’m putting in my three drafts so you can see my process. I often write something that’s too long at the start because I’m so fascinated by the topic, then later editing it to a reasonable length. I always keep the drafts because I might be able to use material from them in another piece.
Gilgamesh Weeps 1 Pronunciation Guide Gilgamesh: /ˈɡɪl.ɡə.mɛʃ/ Enkidu: /ˈɛŋk idu/ Uruk: /jɹ̩ɹ̩ʌk/ Uruk Uruk (not hai) Uruk is where Gilgamesh begins, is born, is brought up Uruk becomes a brother, grows a beard, becomes a king, and is befriended by Enkidu. When his sister calls, Gilgamesh slays her serpent, slays the Adzu bird, slays demonic beasts. For this his sister gives him a drum and sticks a drum and sticks for the slaying of a serpent of the Adzu bird, of the beasts a drum and sticks and Gilgamesh goes drumming drumming and Enkidu and Gilgamesh go drumming drumming all around Uruk Uruk drumming drumming in Uruk but he is careless, and he loses his prizes. Enkidu, friend, comrade Enkidu friend dives to the Underworld to find his friend’s drum and sticks drum and sticks but there are rules, friend Enkidu: now that you are here, you can never leave. In Uruk, Uruk (not hai) Uruk, Gilgamesh —ah!— [sob sound] he weeps, this bearded brawling drum-beating man— he weeps. He hangs his head, he is sorrowful, he is all sorrow, all tears he misses he loves his friend, Enkidu friend Enkidu. His weeping, his sadness, his bad dreams, his trembling hands, he does not hide. Gilgamesh goes weeping around Uruk weeping weeping Gilgamesh, alone, goes weeping all around Uruk and where everyone heard his drum they now hear his tears. Gilgamesh the king, Gilgamesh the man, Gilgamesh who loved Enkidu, Gilgamesh weeps and that is right and good.
There are some Easter eggs in there for fans of Tolkien and classic rock. For version 2, I cut a lot of the story:
Gilgamesh Weeps 2 Gilgamesh has lost a gift— a drum and sticks from his sister— so Enkidu, his friend, comrade Enkidu dives to the Underworld to find his friend’s drum and sticks. But there are rules, and now friend Enkidu can never leave alive. Gilgamesh —ah!— he weeps: this bearded brawling drum-beating man— he weeps. He hangs his head, all sorrow, all tears; he misses and he loves his friend Enkidu He does not hide his trembling hands. Gilgamesh weeps and that is right and good.
Finally, I removed almost everything except for the emotions and the reasons for them:
Gilgamesh Weeps 3 (Final) Gilgamesh the warrior, Gilgamesh the great —ah!— he weeps: this bearded brawling drum-beating man— he weeps. He hangs his head, all sorrow, all tears. He does not hide his trembling hands. For Enkidu, friend to Gilgamesh— comrade Enkidu has dived to the Underworld to find a drum that Gilgamesh has lost. But there are rules in the Underworld, rules neither friend knew, and now friend Enkidu can never leave alive. Enkidu is lost forever! Gilgamesh misses, he loves his friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh weeps and that is right and good. Lisa did a marvelous job setting the text, and you can hear it on Saturday!